The Current State of Sex Trafficking and Celebrity Perpetrators

Girl with text "The Truth about Sex Trafficking"
Source: Yahoo Images

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, “Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” Sex trafficking has commonly been regarded as a human rights crisis that receives an inadequate amount of attention. However, recent news articles surrounding the arrest and conviction of musical artist R. Kelly have invoked national concern over the issue of sex trafficking rings. The arrest of R. Kelly highlighted how minors and members of marginalized groups are disproportionally affected by the sex trafficking industry and that the issue cannot go ignored by media outlets and the public. In 2019, nearly 70% of human trafficking victims in the U.S. were identified as either being sex trafficked, or victims of both forced labor and sexual exploitation. The High Court recently stated that 25 million people worldwide are not afforded their fundamental right to freedom; however, the International Labor Organization estimates the number of human trafficking victims to be approximately 40 million. It is difficult to maintain an accurate report of victims and survivors of human trafficking since cases are largely unreported.  

Who is most at risk? 

Although sex trafficking can happen to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, victims are most frequently identified as members of marginalized groups and communities. The National Human Trafficking Hotline stated that “56 percent of prostituted women were initially runaway youth.” Runaway and homeless youth often lack a strong support system making them especially vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking. Since child participation in commercial sex acts of any capacity is illegal in the U.S. and many countries around the world, these children are a part of a strenuously handled special victims group. Other groups susceptible to human trafficking include those who have endured past traumatic events or violence because traffickers exploit trauma to control and attract their victims.  

Trafficking in the Pandemic  

In recent years, human trafficking has received less attention from the media and general public due to the Covid-19 pandemic occupying the majority of major news publications.  The Covid-19 pandemic may have slightly paused our lives; however, the pandemic did not pause trafficking crimes as many law enforcement officials had hoped. Instead, traffickers have used the effects of the pandemic to their advantage. As many people are experiencing higher levels of economic and social vulnerability, there is consequentially a growing number of individuals put at a higher risk of becoming victims of trafficking. According to the U.S. Department of State, “COVID-19 mitigation efforts, such as stay-at-home orders and travel limitations, increased rates of gender-based violence and substance abuse, both of which put individuals at a higher risk of human traffickers exploiting them.” 

Celebrity Sex Traffickers  

Jeffrey Epstein and R. Kelly
Source: Yahoo Images

American singer and songwriter R. Kelly has recently been accused and convicted of multiple sex trafficking crimes. With accounts that span over two decades, Kelly was found guilty of using his superstar status to bribe and blackmail women and children for sexual exploitation. Tellingly, prosecutors claimed that it was this “superstar” status that allowed Kelly to use his persona to hide his crimes, and his victims, in plain sight. On a CBS interview with Gayle King in September of 2021, Azriel Clary, who had been one of Kelly’s “girlfriends” for five years from the time she was just 17 years old, admitted that she had been heavily manipulated and abused both sexually and verbally, which she also stated while testifying in court against Kelly. Curry went on to say that she regretted defending, now 54-year-old Kelly, in a prior interview with CBS in 2019. Curry admitted that she had lied to Gayle King regarding the condition she and his other victims were enduring in an attempt to satisfy Kelly and out of fear for her own safety. 

Unfortunately, R. Kelly’s case is not the first-or only -time famous artists or other celebrities have used their power to justify and attempt to get away with sexual crimes. One of the most famous of these cases involves financer Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested in 2019 for his role in facilitating a sex trafficking ring on a private estate in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was also convicted as a child sex offender due to his role in coercing minors into sexually exploitative acts as well. Some of Epstein’s famous acquaintances include former presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, who each faced backlash for their connection to Epstein yet were not convicted for committing a crime. Regardless of their level of indictment, cases like these have raised questions regarding why so many celebrities feel that their A-list status increases their ability to disregard the law, and how many may be successful in getting away with various crimes due to their social power and other resources. 

The fight against Sex Trafficking & #MuteRKelly 

people protest outside with #MuteRKelly signs
Source: Yahoo Images

Many current anti-trafficking efforts have had to adapt swiftly amidst Covid-19 protocols and safety measures. According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, “governments and civil society organizations conducted in-depth research assessments on the impacts of COVID-19, leveraged technology as a method to address emerging trends, adapted policy approaches, and sought to expand protections for victims.” The anti-trafficking communities’ pivot has been essential in the continuous attempt to rescue and prevent victims from trafficking and the ongoing data assessment and research of current information.  

Regarding R. Kelly’s case specifically, viewers of the accusations and trials have taken to the streets in protest and to social media in attempt to “#MuteRKelly” in support of his victims. Although the “MuteRKelly” movement was deemed by his own supporters as an unnecessary use of ‘cancel culture’ tactics, many have stood their ground that Kelly made no excusable offense and should face up to life in prison. 

Learn more about supporting possible sex trafficking victims and how to receive help by visiting the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. 

Our Lost Indigenous Women

A protest, with placards displaying the faces and information of missing women
Source: Obert Madondo Via: Flikr/cc

The Problem

Indigenous women face overwhelming rates of violent crime, more than twice the amount of their non-Indigenous counterparts in the United States and 3.5 times in Canada. A 2016 study published by the National Institute of Justice revealed that approximately 84.3% of American Indigenous women have experienced violence against them in their lifetime and 56% of these women would become victims of sexual violence as well. In Canada, only 53% of Indigenous women’s homicides have been solved; drastically less than Canada’s national solve rate of 84%. That statistic becomes even more damning when we take into account that Indigenous females only make up 4% of Canada’s population, yet account for nearly one quarter of all homicide victims in Canada. For decades, Indigenous leaders, tribal governments and human rights organizations alike have called for national reviews in both Canada and the United States into the treatment of cases regarding Indigenous women. A publication from the US Department of Justice states that Indigenous female victims in the United States are far more likely to need services that aid survivors of such violence, but are the least likely group to have access to these services. The majority of Native American women will face physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and more than a third will be unable to access necessary services after the event due to drastic disparities in access to healthcare and treatment by law enforcement. With each new set of data we have re-confirmed the existence of a plight sweeping through native communities, robbing women within them of their security, safety, and visibility. 

Marchers holding a banner that says "No more stolen sisters"
Source: Yahoo Images

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MMIW)

In recent years, social media pushes have been made to raise attention for what is now known as “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women”, a simple catchphrase encompassing decades of neglect from all channels that is now spearheading a movement for justice. This hashtag and social media campaign generates hundreds of thousands of interactions and impressions on social media every day, and brings attention to the individual stories of missing indigenous women or families of women lost to homicides that are still unsolved. However, indigenous women rarely get the national media attention that white women experience when they go missing; and when every minute and resource makes an empirical difference in the likelihood of that woman being found alive. A prior article from the Institute of Human Rights speaks specifically about the recent Gabby Petito case, and the disproportionate response of the American public for missing white women in comparison to women of color and indigenous women here. These drastically different responses only amplify the vulnerability of indigenous women.

It is horrific to think about a situation in which no one will come looking for you if you go missing. That nightmare has become an internalized reality in so many indigenous communities, where young women are being raised with impressive levels of advocacy for their missing sisters, but are witnessing first hand how much of a struggle that advocacy is. Social media is beginning to catch up to decades of research that has been waiting for a time like now, where the general public may be ready to listen and push for change. The Murder Accountability Project (MAP) has tirelessly collected data on unsolved homicides in the United States to apply pressure on law enforcement in communities with disproportionately high unsolved homicide rates, and put a spotlight on communities that fail to report important information to federal databases. The Indigenous community is heavily reflected in both of those categories.

A broken chain of command and lack of communication is often cited for why so few of these reported cases are ever investigated, as local, state and federal law enforcement agencies struggle to find a balance of working with native land and sovereign tribes through the reporting process. Many violent crimes against indigenous women occur on sovereign native land, however, 96% of the perpetrators are non-indigenous. This causes major confusion as tribal governments are unable to prosecute non-indigenous persons, and most standard law enforcement agencies have no jurisdiction over any crimes that occur on native land. This complicated mess of jurisdiction and authority confuses law enforcement, tribal governments, and victims alike. 

Unfortunately, law enforcement has repeatedly made glaring errors that are impossible to ignore; tribal organizations have found that the United States National Crime Information Center recorded 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls in 2016, but the US Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database shows that only 116 of those 5,712 cases were never logged. Essentially, this information means that only 2% of all cases of missing indigenous women were properly reported. This cannot be ignored; many families, friends and loved ones are left wondering why our government has forgotten and neglected their sisters, mothers, wives and daughters. While the answer may not always be clear, movements like #MMIW are bringing this conversation to the forefront of politics and media. In order to provide justice for these women, we must demand increased preventative and investigative efforts to protect these women when they need it the most.

An infographic displaying data on missing indigenous women
Source: Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into MMIWG VIA: Yahoo Images

Truths of Targeting

The vast majority of homicides of indigenous females go unsolved for years, and even the solved cases display how this systemic neglect has been repeatedly exploited. As determined by the FBI, “vulnerability” is a key factor in a killer’s process of victim selection; a category most indigenous women have been forced into by countless factors beyond their control. Prolific serial killers like Robert Pickton (Canada) and Robert Hansen (United States) specifically targeted indigenous women and sex workers during their killing sprees, and doing so allowed them to murder dozens of women completely undetected by law enforcement for decades. More than half of Pickton’s victims were thought to be aboriginal women, though many were never identified, and Hansen’s victims were often young indigenous women who had turned to survival sex work out of financial desperation. While describing research confirming how killers have manipulated vulnerabilities to their benefit, Co-director of MAP and criminologist Michael Arntfield determined that “Serial killers prey on marginalized populations, and indigenous women make up a disproportionate number in the victim pool”.

Sign stating "You are not forgotten" at a march for missing indigenous women
Source: Pressbooks Open Library Via: Yahoo Images

How to Help

There are many exceptional campaigns, research organizations and nonprofits to get involved that are currently on the forefront of the fight to end violence against indigenous women. If you wish to learn more about the topic, you can explore other Institute of Human Rights articles promoting Indigenous rights here, or click here to find an excellent resource sheet with educational sources and ways to get involved with MMIW. There are countless petitions for reform in both the US and Canada as well; this petition calls for the passing of Savanna’s Act, which will require the Department of Justice to update their missing persons database to better help identify missing and murdered Indigenous women and prevent further discrepancies in reported cases. This petition is a plea to the US Senate, calling for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to be re-authorized and receive greater funding as VAWA increases abilities for tribal nations to prosecute non-native offenders as well as providing resources for responses from law enforcement on all levels when cases of violent crimes or missing women are reported. The Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women offers ways to donate, volunteer, attend community training, and other incredible opportunities to get involved in the movement. The Sovereign Bodies Institute utilizes donations to collect culturally-informed research on gender and sexual violence against indigenous peoples.

The only way to protect these women is to take drastic steps towards change. We can no longer ignore, deny or neglect the truths of everything both systemic and societal that has consistently failed the indigenous community, and the women within it. Please research, donate, volunteer, and find a way to become an advocate for the missing and murdered. We can have no more stolen sisters.

The Missing Case of Gabby Petito and the Cases of Missing Indigenous Women

Missing flyer of Gabby Petito depicting a picture of Gabby with the hashtag of America's daughter
Yahoo Images

On September 11, Gabby Petito, a young white woman who was travelling in a van and recording videos about her life with her boyfriend, was reported missing by her family. Petito’s popularity on YouTube and Tik Tok helped the story circulate like wildfire with true crime podcasts , national news channels , and intense investigation from officials and the general public. The fervent public engagement and dedication of investigative officials lead to Petito’s remains being discovered in less than a month in Wyoming. Within the last nine years 710 indigenous people, mainly women, have disappeared in the same area where Petito was found, and most cases have remained unresolved. Where was their national media coverage? Currently, 64,000 Black women are declared missing within America, but where is their media attention and public outcry? The case of Gabby Petito is an unfortunate situation and deserves to have the proper investigative force behind it. However, we must ask ourselves why cases like Petito’s, usually young white women gain the most awareness, while women of color, like indigenous women are often ignored on a local and national level. The power of the media and public opinion is significant. The interest of the public has been able to reopen cases and even apprehend criminals. Public outcry has secured justice for victims and their families,  which is recognition and treatment that indigenous women often lack.

Indigenous women with red hand painted over the mouth, presenting the voiceless and missing indigenous women
Yahoo images

The Mary Johnson Case 

On November 25, 2020 Mary Johnson, an indigenous woman of the Tulalip Tribe, went missing while walking to a friend’s house in Washington state. Over the span of 10 months, the search for Johnson involved a billboard on the interstate and local media coverage, which resulted in little development towards finding or arresting the perpetrator behind her disappearance. Local tribal police efforts have not recovered Mary Johnson’s body and have not made any arrests, despite having identified multiple people of interest.  

Why has such little investigative action occurred over such a long period of time? Abigail Echo-Hawk, chief research officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board, states that investigation by law enforcement is often delayed due to the “maze of jurisdiction” in the local county. The boundaries among the authorities overseeing the case must be distinguished between the federal government, state government, and the tribal police, this process is often complicated by the complex procedures of bureaucracy. Additionally, tribal authorities often lack jurisdiction or are limited in their ability to prosecute non-Native people for crimes committed on tribal land. The federal government, which carries the authority of persecution, often does not offer its services. The competence and empathy that Mary Johnson and her family deserve was undercut by governmental and legislative administrations who focused on avoiding responsibility rather than seeking justice, for Mary Johnson. Cases such as Mary Johnson continue to emulate the numerous, and neglected cases of missing indigenous women.  

Banner with the words "No more Stolen Sisters" at a protest for missing indigenous women
Yahoo Images

The Disparities in Media Attention and Investigation 

The discrepancy in the media treatment and public awareness of missing white women compared to missing women of color, including indigenous women, is referred to as “missing white woman syndrome.” The Lucchesi Sovereign Bodies Institute reports that from 2000 to 2009 local and state media covered 18% of homicide cases related to indigenous women and 50% of homicide cases related to white victims. The reporting of cases between white and indigenous victims is even dependent on the status of the victim, whether they are dead or alive. The Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center reports that white people are more likely to have an article written about them while they are still alive. Approximately 76% of articles written about white victims are published while the victim is still alive, but 42% of articles written about indigenous victims are written after the indigenous victim is found dead. Indigenous people are more likely to have an article written on them if they were found dead with 57% of articles being on indigenous missing people, but no articles about white missing persons which displays that white missing persons receive media recognition in a timely manner, before the victim has been found dead. The underrepresentation of indigenous women within media is alarming considering how there have been 5,712 missing cases since 2016, .  

The lack of awareness and ignorance surrounding the numerous cases of missing  indigenous women is ironic considering how indigenous women are at higher risk for acts of violence and should receive more awareness and protections. In fact, American Indian and Alaskan Native women living on tribal lands are murdered at rates more than ten times the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Publicity around these cases is crucial because these cases are not simply cases of missing people, but also cases of domestic violence, homicide, sexual assault, and sex trafficking which are rampant issues within indigenous communities. Compared to their white counterparts, indigenous women are 1.7 times more likely to experience violence, and 2 times more likely to be raped. More than half of indigenous women have experienced sexual violence (56.1%) and have been physically abused by their partners (55.5%). These acts of violence intrinsically violate and disregard the human right for indigenous women to exist in peace and security. Systematically, the safety and protection of indigenous women is neglected and allowed to continuously occur without intervention from the United States government.  

Why is there a Gap?  

Indigenous women’s rights advocates argue that indigenous women are often blamed for their own disappearances, thus resulting in a lack of empathy and effort from officials, media, and the public. 

Echo-Hawk, Seattle Indian Health Board chief research officer states that, “They’re [indigenous women] assumed to have run away, have substance abuse issues, or done something that justified them going missing or being murdered.”

Due to such prejudice and bias from authorities, the crucial initial period of search for a missing person is often lost because of the dismissal of families’ concern and refusal of investigative officers to report an indigenous woman is missing. Echo-Hawks details the common scenario as victim blaming where authorities ask questions like, “Did she run away? Was she out drinking?” and then dismiss family member concerns by saying their loved one will likely just come home in a couple of days. 

Beyond the biases of local authorities, such victim blaming can manifest into negative character framing within media coverage further leading to poor incentive for authorities and the public to display concern and initiative in resolving cases and serving justice for missing indigenous women. The Governor’s Taskforce on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons reports that 16% of articles about indigenous people involves negative character framing, emphasizing negative aspects of the victim’s life, family, and community that are unrelated to the crime itself.   

founders and members of the Na’ah Illahee fund
Yahoo Images
How can you help? 

The negligence of authorities and lack of media attention isolates Indigenous families in their search for their missing family member. 

A Seattle Native-led nonprofit Na’ah Illahee (NIF) launched the “Red Blanket Fund,” to provide support for families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. You can donate to Na’ah Illahee and other organizations like it. Additional organizations include, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA and  National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center 

The State of Incarceration in Alabama

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending the Organized Radical Collegiate Activism (ORCA) Conference organized by the UAB Social Justice Advocacy Council on January 24, 2020. Various important and interesting social justice issues were discussed and presented by talented UAB students throughout the day. The presentation that stood out the most to me was “The State of Incarceration in Alabama” by Eli and Bella Tylicki. The brother-and-sister duo did a great job bringing attention to a very important human rights issue right here in Alabama.

Eli Tylicki and Bella Tylicki Source: ORCA 2020

The presentation started out with some questions for the attendees, such as what they thought were their odds of getting incarcerated at some point in their life? After some interesting responses from the audience, the presenters revealed that White men have a 7% chance of getting incarcerated at least once in their life, Hispanic men 17%, and African American men have the highest (32%) chance. However, women account for only 7% of the U.S. prison population. It was also revealed that the cost to imprison one person for a year in the U.S. is $36,299.25, or $99.45 per day.

As compared to other developed countries such as Canada, Germany, France, Italy, and the U.K, the United States has the highest number of incarcerated people per 100,000 population, almost three times more than these countries. The United States makes up roughly 5% of the world’s population but holds about 25% of the world’s prisoners. Shockingly, 31 U.S. states also have higher incarceration rates than any country in the world, and Alabama is among the worst in the country. Alabama exceeds national averages in virtually every category measured by states and the federal government, making the state’s prison system one of the most violent in the nation.

Source: https://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/2018.html

Now the question arises, why is the state of incarceration in the U.S. uniquely outrageous, and why is Alabama among the worst in this aspect? Many factors are responsible for such staggering statistics, including our economy built on slavery, poverty, tradition-based culture, fear and insecurity, systemic racism, educational inequity, and punitive cultural attitudes just to name a few. Focusing on Alabama, the presenters showed that Alabama’s prisons were revealed to be the most crowded in the country in 2017, with the prison suicide rate being three times more and the homicide rate ten times more than the national average. On April 2, 2019, the U.S Department of Justice Report concluded that “there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Department concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the men’s prisons fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse and fail to provide prisoners with safe conditions.” Note that the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the infliction of excessive, cruel, and unusual punishment.

The presenters then went on to show the various horrific accounts of prisoner violence, sexual abuse, homicide cases, and extreme physical injuries during a single week in 2017 as reported by the investigation. It was extremely shocking to learn about the various instances of such abuse and violence that took place in just a single week in our prisons. Those examples were used to illustrate the gravity of ongoing issues in state prisons and are not mentioned here due to their disturbing and triggering nature. Additionally, overcrowding and understaffing are some very important issues that contribute to the worsening situation of prisons in Alabama. According to the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), the state houses approximately 16,327 prisoners in major correctional facilities which are designed to hold only 9,882. Moreover, prisons like Staton and Kilby hold almost three times the number of prisoners than their capacity. As for understaffing, Alabama’s prisons employ only 1,072 out of the 3,326 needed correctional officers according to ADOC’s staffing report from June 2018. It also reported that three prisons have fewer than 20% of the needed correctional officers. This illustrates the increased threat to the safety of both the staff and the prisoners in those facilities due to the lack of required personnel in case of an emergency.

Source: Yahoo Images, Creative Common

The Department of Justice also reported the excessive number of deaths due to violent and deadly assault, high number of life-threatening injuries, unchecked extortions, illegal drugs, and the routinely inability to adequately protect prisoners even when officials have advance warning. The report also threatened a lawsuit within 49 days if the state does not show that it is correcting what is said to be a systemic failure to protect inmates from violence and sexual abuse.

In response, Alabama’s Governor Kay Ivey has proposed a public-private partnership to lease three “megaprisons” from a private firm as a solution to the understaffing and cost-ineffective conditions in state prisons. Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said that “we are convinced now more than ever before that consolidating our infrastructure down to three regional facilities and decommissioning the majority of our major facilities is the way to go.”

Bella and Eli Tylicki gave an overview of the potential pros and cons of the megaprison proposal. Some advantages may be that the upfront costs will be covered, and it may prove as a quick fix with less red tape (a reduction of bureaucratic obstacles to action). However, privatized prisons may lead to a decreased quality of life, is economically inefficient, and there is no change in cost for taxpayers. The Equal Justice Initiative explains how building new prisons will not solve the state’s prison crisis:

Alabama’s primary problems relate to management, staffing, poor classification, inadequate programming for incarcerated people, inadequate treatment programs, poor training, and officer retention. None of these problems will be solved by building new prisons, nor does a prison construction strategy respond to the imminent risk of harm to staff, incarcerated people, and the public.

Therefore, the presenters proposed an alternative to this solution in the form of decarceration and rehabilitation of prisoners. This aims at fixing overcrowding and understaffing, decreases the inside violence, and costs less for taxpayers. Additionally, there is no change in crime rate outside the prisons and rehabilitation leads toward GDP growth and a more productive society. Studies have shown that incarcerated people who participate in correctional education programs are less likely to recidivate and have a higher chance of finding employment when they are released. Plus, these valuable educational and rehabilitative programs cost the state nothing while having significant positive effects on successful re-entry of prisoners and protecting public safety. Of course, there will need to be more done other than just an emphasis on decarceration, such as fixing the infrastructure, improving healthcare, and incentivizing an increase in Correctional Officers. Low-cost reforms such as effective use of video surveillance cameras, implementation of an internal classification system, skilled management, and other basic management systems such as incident tracking systems, quality control, and corrective action review can result in significant improvements in conditions for both the staff and the prisoners. These low-cost reforms helped the nation’s worst women prison, the Tutwiler Prison for Women, become a model for reform.

The Tylickis ended their presentation with a call for action by urging the audience members to call their state representatives and senators to take responsible action, as they will be voting on this issue in the coming weeks. Additionally, they asked us to volunteer with reentry organizations and educate ourselves and others on the issue. Some initiatives that we can support include The Dannon Project, Alabama Appleseed, and the Equal Justice Initiative. We, as responsible and active citizens of this state, need to play our part in making our society safe, just, and productive for all.

An Argument for Decriminalizing Sex Work

Abstract of a red light
Abstract at a Red Light. James Loesch. Creative Commons for Flickr.

Different human rights groups support or have called for the decriminalization of sex work. Some of which include Amnesty International, World Health Organization, UNAIDS, International Labour Organization, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, the Open Society Foundations, and Anti-Slavery International.

Picking on one, the Human Rights Watch supports the full decriminalization of consensual adult sex work in support and defense of human rights relating to personal autonomy and privacy as, “A government should not be telling consenting adults whom they can have sexual relations with and on what terms.” Joining 61 other organizations, they recently advocated for a bill that would decriminalize sex work in Washington, DC. This Community Safety and Health Amendment Act intends to repeal statutes that criminalize adults who voluntarily and consensually engage in sexual exchange, while it upholds and defends the legislature which prohibits sex trafficking. The HRW affirms that adult consensual sexual activity may be covered by the concept of privacy, rejecting the idea that criminalization was a protective measure against HIV and STIs, and conveying that it was more likely to drive a vulnerable population underground.

However, the demands of these organizations and supporters of sex workers have surfaced controversy around sexuality, health, economics, and morality. Often the idea of sex work may be tied to or conflated with sex trafficking, child sex abuse, and rape. Open Society Foundation simply defines sex workers as “adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services or erotic performances, either regularly or occasionally.” Sex work encompasses a wide range of professions and activities which include the trade of some form of sexual activity, performance, or service for a client to a number of fans for some kind of payment (including prostitution, pornography, stripping, and other forms of commercial sex). It is clearly separated from those services that utilize “the threat or use of force, abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation”. Decriminalizing sex work would call for the “removal of criminal and administrative penalties that apply specifically to sex work, creating an enabling environment for sex workers’ health and safety.” Amnesty International expands on these definitions in this report.

Many members of society view sex work as immoral or degrading to women, arguing that sex work is inherently exploitative of women, even if these workers find it profitable or empowering- even simply as the power to creatively express one’s sexuality. When we think of sex workers, we tend to assume they were forced into it or assume a desperate narrative with no other options. Then, maybe, we judge their appearance while tying it to their worth or a fantasized idea of sex workers opposed to the ordinariness we associate with other professions and community members. A simple argument says that, like any profession, there are extremely different motivations to pursue these professions and, in the end, it’s a job or choice of work with its own pros and cons for each lifestyle (affording many lifestyles). Also, anyone and any personality can be a sex worker.

People enter and remain in this work for a multitude of reasons creating each individual experience of sex work; however, many face the same response and abuse in the workplace or trade. Owning to the stigma associated with the profession, not many can come out and say they are a sex worker. They must fight to be recognized beyond the stigma or continue to repress or hide their daily lives from their community or society. Sex workers report extreme violence and harassment from clients, managers, police and society and even more cannot report these violences, facing incrimination or even incarceration. Ironically, laws on sex work undermine governments’ own efforts to reduce high rates of violence against women and reduce rates of HIV infection in sex worker populations.

Repressive policing not only further marginalizes sex workers as a whole, but it also reinforces what it promises to remove as it exposes sex workers to different abuses and exploitation by police or law enforcement officials who may arrest, harass, physically or verbally abuse, extort bribes and sexual services, or deny protection to sex workers avoiding the eyes of the law. Some sex work may be illegal because it is viewed as immoral and degrading, but people governed by these laws do not share the same moral beliefs. As police fail to act on sex workers’ reports of crimes, or blame and arrest sex workers themselves, offenders may operate with impunity while sex workers are discouraged from reporting to the police in the future. Then there is the financial toll of criminalization as repeating fines or arrests push some further into poverty. People may be forced to keep selling sex as potential employers will not hire those with a criminal record. Also, if the need for money found some sex workers in the streets, how will fines deter the work?

The work entails forming relationships with a wide range of clients at different levels of intimacy. Unfortunately, sex work offers comfort to predators, or those who mean harm, who also understand and exploit the workers paralleling relationship with police. Working in isolation, workers’ lives are threatened as they avoid the police and are denied these protections in their workplace and, off the hook, predators continue to harm more even those outside of the sex trade. Facing arrest or prosecution themselves, any client may protect themselves from blocked numbers leaving workers in the dark with no evidence of whom they are dealing with, surrendering that safety. Some laws advocate helping sex workers by removing the option of work as it criminalizes only those who buy sex. Now, to incentivize clients and income, workers may be forced to drop prices, offer more risky services, or reach out to potentially abusive third-party management.

Woman holding poster reaing "Sex Workers Demand Safe Spaces"
Sex Workers Demand Safe Spaces. Fibonacci Blue. Creative Commons for Flckr.

Decriminalizing and regulating the work of sex workers would allow them the right to choose their clients and negotiating power or power to cease the service when they feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Criminalization, or the threat of it, complicates and weakens workers’ power to negotiate terms with their clients or collaborate with others for safety. So, for example, it may increase the chance for workers to engage in sex with clients without a condom (which may be used as evidence of the crime). Although variable in different contexts, in low and middle-income countries on average, sex workers are 13 times more at risk of HIV, compared to women of reproductive age (age 15 to 49), so their ability to negotiate condom use is important.

According to a study led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, sex workers who had been exposed to repressive policing had a three times higher chance of experiencing sexual or physical violence by anyone, including clients and partners. They were also twice as likely to have Sexual Transmitted Infections than those who avoided repressive policing.

In order to be protected from exploitation by third party managers and dangerous clients, to be informed on sexual transmitted infection and other health concerns or vulnerabilities, to be able to unionize and self-manage, and to be able to reach out to law enforcement, sex work should be regulated by the same occupational safety and health regulations that benefit workers in other labor industries. Dedicated efforts must consider the elevated or unique risks, vulnerabilities, and intersectional stigmas surrounding different sex workers, including men, transgender, and other gender identities and portions to improve health outcomes and human rights. Wider political actions are needed to address inequalities, stigma, and exclusion or marginalization that sex workers face even past the criminal justice system to health, housing, employment, education, domestic abuses, etc.

We are faced with opposing or contradictory narratives of the sex work experience, but we have chosen some to represent the entire concept especially those tailored to our own feelings of sex and commerce without concern or consideration of those even more immediately affected. The conversation of sex work needs to open up to understand and share the message to all that the labor itself is the commodity, not the laborer and it requires workers more considerate rights and regulations. If sex work is legally accepted with due rights and respect, it can become something that benefits- even especially vulnerable or marginalized- women and humanity.

What sex workers need is not condescension and invasion into their private lives, but support in achieving decent working conditions.”

Additional Sources:

Open Society Foundations

Vox

 

 

 

Hashtags and Human Rights

A picture of nine hands each with different words on them. On the red, Freedom. On the second red, Trust. On the orange, Justice. On the limeish green, Love. On the green, Rule of Law. On the sky blue, Peace. On the darker blue, Prosperity. On the pink, Dignity. On the purple, Equality.
PSHRC – Punjab State Human Rights Commission. Source: Punjab State Human Rights Commission, Creative Commons

Throughout the history of humankind, the way in which people transmit news has evolved exponentially, from the word of mouth in the olden days to a simple click, swipe, and 240 characters. It connects you and I to events happening around the world, from concerts to social movements concerning human rights. But, to what extent does the hashtag, only a recent medium for communication, bring people together around a common goal or movement?

The hashtag originated in 2007 by Chris Messina as a way “to provide extra information about a tweet, like where you are or what event you’re referring to.” Later that October, during the San Diego wildfires, Messina simply created the hashtag “#sandiegofire” and included it with tweets, allowing others to engage with the conversation and gain an awareness of current events.

In terms of human rights, the hashtag has also been influential in bringing people together under a common cause, be it international crises, sexual harassment, or even just helping organizations raise money to cure diseases. Hashtag activism, as this is called, “is the act of fighting for or supporting a cause that people are advocating through social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other networking websites.” It allows people to “like” a post and “share” a post to another friend, thus spreading awareness about the issue at large.

Where and How has the hashtag been influential?

As you might recall in 2014, many people around the world took part in the #ALSIceBucketChallenge, where participants would dump a bucket or a container of ice water on their heads. This challenge went so viral that a “reported one in six” British people took part. It also went so far as involving celebrities like Lady Gaga, which demonstrated its far reach and effectiveness. Despite many calling this challenge a form of slacktivism, (where one would simply like the post and involve very little commitment), the ALS Association raised over $115 million USD. Due to this striking number, the Association was able to fund a scientific breakthrough that discovered a new gene that contributed to the disease.

An image of a woman reacting to a splash of water from the top of her head. Basically a standard reaction from when someone does the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Free Stock Photo of ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

Then in 2017, the #MeToo movement sprung from the shadows, calling out sexual predators and forcing the removal of many high-profile celebrities, namely Harvey Weinstein. It went way beyond Turkana Burke, the founder of the MeToo movement from more than a decade ago, expected. It was through the use of social media that made #MeToo movement as large as it is today. As of 2018, the hashtag was used “more than 19 million times on Twitter from the date of [Alyssa] Milano’s initial tweet.” This effect, known as the Harvey Weinstein Effect, knocked many of the United States’ ‘top dogs’ from the limelight, revealing what could be behind the facade of power, wealth, and control that they hold. From Weinstein to George H.W. Bush to even U.S. Senate Candidate for Alabama Roy Moore, their reactions varied as much as the amount of people accused. Weinstein was ultimately fired, H.W. Bush apologized for his actions, and Moore denied the accusations. Through increased awareness and the ability to connect to virtually everywhere, women and men began to tell their stories and call attention to the actions of sexual predators.

An image of six people holding up a sign that spells out #METOO.
Pink Letters Forming the Word #MeToo. Source: Rawpixel, Creative Commons

Both the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and the MeToo Movement allude to key human rights concerns, with ALS involving the life of a person through a disease and MeToo involving sexual harassment charges and claims. By eliminating the one thing that threatened the life or sanctity of a person (Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), a push towards human rights became realized. This demonstrates how hashtags are effective at promoting human rights issues among the general public, allowing these concerns to be confronted and resolved.

But where has the hashtag been limited in practice?

In April 2014, “276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from the remote northeast Nigerian town of Chibok by Boko Haram.” Soon after this event, #BringBackOurGirls shot up to the trending page of Twitter, and was shared more than four millions times, making it one of Africa’s most popular online campaigns. Alongside massive support from the public also came backing from famous individuals such as Kim Kardashian, Michelle Obama, and many others. Even though this campaign helped bring to light the domestic conflict that “claimed at least 20,000 lives,” it only resulted in limited support and is, arguably, an indicator of ‘slacktivism’. With a majority of support coming from Twitter users residing in the United States, Nigerian politics dismissed this outrage as some sort of partisan opposition against the Nigerian president of the time. As Ufuoma Akpojivi (media researcher from South Africa) said, “There is a misconception that embracing social media or using new media technologies will bring about the needed change.” Even with the global outrage at the kidnapping of teenagers, not much action took place because of partisanship and US disconnection with Nigerian citizens.

An image of former First Lady Michelle Obama holding up a sign saying #BringBackOurGirls.
MJ-UPBEAT Bring Back Our Girls! Source: mj-upbeat.com, Creative Commons

Following, in 2018, hashtags such as #NeverAgain, #MarchForOurLives, and #DouglasStrong emerged as a response to the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, where teen personalities and activists Emma Gonzáles, David Hogg, and others began campaigning against the accessibility of guns. Such a movement gained considerable support, with over 3.3 million tweets including the #MarchForOurLives hashtag and over 11.5 million posts related to the March itself. Through the use of social media, the movement was born; however, one of the key things that March For Our Lives disregards is the bureaucratic system that the government embodies. Even though activists want rapid and sweeping changes to the system, Kiran Pandey notes how “there is only the trenchant continuation of political grandstanding, only this time it’s been filtered through the mouths of America’s youth.” Even with such declarations facing our bureaucratic system, alienating people with diverse viewpoints have made the movement weak and ineffective. It does not help when many people, including our friends and family own a gun. By attacking these owners and not focusing on saving lives, this movement has been, and will arguably be, stagnant until bipartisanship is emphasized and utilized.

An image of three kids surrounding a sign that says No Guns No Violence.
WR Nonviolence — Nonviolence makes the world a better place. Source: Waterloo Region Nonviolence, Creative Commons

Though both #BringBackOurGirls and #MarchForOurLives caused widespread protests and promoted awareness about the key issues of the time, it failed to generate support due to its limited field. In #BringBackOurGirls, many of the mentions came from U.S. Twitter users. Because the conflict was and is taking place in Nigeria, many of these tweets and protests have little to no say in the matter of forcing Boko Haram to return the kidnapped Nigerian girls. In the case of #MarchForOurLives, the movement failed to gain traction simply because of its push to call out those in support of having guns and the NRA caused the issue of safety and security of the person to become a partisan issue. Both issues are key human rights issues, however, they fail to capitalize on actual support and exclude those who have diverse views on the issue at hand.

How exactly could someone make a hashtag go viral?

Well, according to ReThink Media, an organization that works to build “the communications capacity of nonprofit think tanks, experts, and advocacy groups,” building a hashtag campaign for social impact includes three key areas to manage a hashtag campaign:

  1. Having a List of Your Supporters
    • Having influencers and connectors can help in a great way. By using a specific hashtag to a broad fanbase or following, having those influencers can help jump-start a movement and gain awareness rapidly about key issues of the time.
  2. Using the Right Terms at the Right Time
    • “Take too long to decide and the news cycle might pass you by.” By using terms that appeal to everyone and using them during critical news-worthy moments, it is easy to be able to attract everyone quickly. For example, if there was some type of crisis going on in the United States, having a relevant hashtag that appeals to everyone could allow more people to support that movement. Using terms that solely appeal to a political side may only be limited in scope.
  3. Have Supplemental Support Once the Hashtag Gets Posted
    • By using certain graphics or memes, combined with the regular posting of the hashtag overtime, during mid-day, more people could potentially get involved and push the movement towards social impact. It also allows people to gain awareness and spread that message to more people in their following.

Overall, hashtags can be effective when incorporating supplemental supporters and a non-partisan central focus. By supporting the movement through influencers and spreading awareness, such a movement could gain traction and provide real-time results, such as the removal of sexual predators from positions of power and gaining funding in order to cure a disease. However, a hashtag’s reliability is solely dependent on the users that spread it. Thus, social media can help people gain a social consciousness and support pivotal human rights issues when they matter most to those affected.

The Sex Trafficking Industry Right In Alabama

by Dianna Bai

a picture of hands in chains
Source: Public Domain

You may have heard of the tragic situation straddling the I-20 corridor, the stretch of highway that runs between Birmingham and Atlanta.

Known as the “sex trafficking super highway,” the I-20 corridor is a hotbed for human trafficking.

The intimate settings of this illegal trade? Familiar places in our backyard: the hotels on Oxmoor Road, Woodlawn, Bessemer, and establishments all over the city of Birmingham.

Yet sex trafficking is not just confined to the I-20 corridor, as many media reports would suggest. It’s spread throughout the state of Alabama, in large cities and rural areas alike, appearing in myriad variations. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there are over 6000 victims of human trafficking each day in Alabama, which includes labor and sex trafficking.

As a $32 billion industry, human trafficking is the second-largest criminal industry in the world after the illicit drug trade—and it’s the fastest-growing. It’s the modern-day slave trade flourishing under the radar.

In the idyllic foothills of Alabama, we are touched by dark and complex operations with global reverberations.

Who are the victims of sex trafficking in Alabama?

Sex traffickers prey on the vulnerable, such as people who come from poverty or broken families.

According to The WellHouse, a non-profit organization that shelters young women in Alabama who have been victims of sex trafficking, there is a common “model” of a victim human traffickers prey on.

She is often a 12-14-year-old girl who has already been a victim of sexual abuse by a family member. An emotionally vulnerable young woman, she is lured in by the promises of comfort, love, and acceptance that an older man offers her.

He will later become her captor.

One example provided by Carolyn Potter, the executive director of The WellHouse, offers us a glimpse into the world of the girls who become victims of traffickers:

“There was a victim who had been abused by her stepfather—and her mother blamed her. Her captor started luring her in and buying her Hello Kitty items. She loved this. Nobody who was supposed to protect her protected her.”

Sex traffickers often prey on girls who have been abused by the people who love them. The accumulated trauma and experiences of abuse that these girls have been subjected to in their young lives gives rise to a sense of apathy and hopelessness.

So when their captors, who had been lavishing them with gifts and attention, start asking them to sell their bodies, their reaction is often, “Why not? This has been happening to me all my life.”

To numb the pain of repeated abuse, they may turn to drugs provided by the captors and become addicted. Traffickers then have a way to keep them from leaving.

A few might escape this life by her own efforts, but more often than not they escape through rescue operations carried out by law enforcement. In January of this year, the Well House participated in a sting operation led by the FBI during the Atlanta Super Bowl that rescued 18 girls and led to 169 arrests.

Once rescued, one of the most important steps to helping victims is simply the process of gaining their trust, as most victims who have been trapped in this life suffer from complex trauma. “Their level of PTSD is equal to someone who’s been in war,” Potter said.

What does the sex trafficking industry look like in Alabama?

As a criminal activity, sex trafficking in Alabama can take on many forms.  

“Alabama is a microcosm of human trafficking around the world,” said Christian Lim, a professor of social work at the University of Alabama who is heading up a federally funded project on the subject. “There is just about every type of human trafficking in Alabama.”

On one end of the spectrum, there are individual pimps conducting a small-time business. They might even be family members who are pimping out their children for rent or drug money—and these cases often go unreported because of the family connection. On the other end, there are the massage parlors that are the fronts for international criminal networks, laundering money and trafficking women from places as far as China and Korea. These massage parlors routinely bring in $500,000-$800,000 a year, operating late into the night and advertising online at dozens of websites selling sex.

Sex trafficking has also risen in recent years among street gangs in Alabama with ties to Georgia, Florida, and even the West Coast, according to Teresa Collier at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Street gangs such as the Bloods, Simon City Royals, Latin Kings, and Surenos are known to be engaging in sex trafficking to make a profit alongside the illegal drug trade. Recruiting mostly young victims, traffickers use “bottom girls” – prostitutes who are trusted by the pimps – to identify and recruit new girls, as well as a bevy of popular social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, KIK, Meet Me, Badoo, and Seeking Arrangement. Gangs like the Surenos, which have a powerful reach back to El Salvador, can even coerce the women by threatening their families back home.

In many cases, other criminal activities such as drug dealing, money laundering, and murder also surround sex trafficking operations.

What’s being done about sex trafficking in Alabama?

One reason Alabama attracts traffickers of all stripes is because it is easier to get away with the crime than other states like Georgia that have a tactical task force dedicated to combating sex trafficking, according to Collier at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Also playing to the trafficker’s advantage is the fact that Alabama is mostly a rural state with greater distances between police stations and fewer resources for law enforcement, said Lim, the professor of social work at the University of Alabama. He also said there’s needs to be more awareness raised about this issue as many misconceptions exist about sex trafficking due to the popular media’s portrayal of sex trafficking in movies like “Taken.”

The Department of Homeland Security is investigating an array of cases in Alabama and prosecuting cases at both the state and federal level. “We have made human trafficking arrests at every socioeconomic level in Birmingham, from Mountain Brook to $35-a-night hotel rooms,” said Doug Gilmer, the agent in charge of the Department of Homeland Security’s Birmingham office. “Trafficking victims also run the spectrum, with girls ranging from age 12 to the 50s.”

DHS has also provided training to 1500 Alabama law enforcement officers to combat sex trafficking in the state and offers education to any community group that’s interested. These trainings focus on how to how to recognize the signs of sex trafficking, how to respond to a call, and how to support the victims.

Meanwhile, local law enforcement agencies such as the Tuscaloosa Police have jumpstarted special initiatives to combat sex trafficking in Alabama. The Tuscaloosa Police worked with Illinois’ Cooke County police three years ago in a “National Day of Johns” sting, specifically targeting the “demand” side of the industry. Officers placed fictitious ads for sex services on various sites, which led to the arrest of 135 Johns over 16 days.

But it’s a cat-and-mouse game as traffickers find new ways to advertise sex services, moving from online ads to alternatives like secret Facebook groups. Undercover agents are seeking out these secret online groups to find traffickers and victims as traffickers learn from past mistakes and become savvier at using the digital tools at their disposal. A popular website hosted in the United States, backpage.com, was shut down by the FBI several years ago, yet has created new challenges for law enforcement as dozens of newer and smaller sites have now popped up hosted by foreign servers that are outside the jurisdiction of U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Alabama’s state legislature is also moving on this issue. They have recently passed three resolutions that would require training for truckers and healthcare workers to spot the signs of human trafficking and make it easier for the trucker to identify victims. Two other bills moving through the legislature are intended to fine and “shame” johns for soliciting sex services.

“There should be no politics when it comes to protecting our children,” State Representative Merika Coleman told AL.com.

Right in Our Backyard

It is revealing and disheartening to see the extent of the modern-day slave trade right here in our backyard in Alabama. Without the right consciousness, it may be invisible to the average person. You may see a scantily dressed young woman walking through a gas station, a Sonic, or a Walmart. She is always accompanied by someone. She looks depressed or hopeless… You may have just run into a victim of human trafficking.

Vulnerable women (and men) and children are being exploited over and over again for the profit of more powerful and unscrupulous individuals and criminal organizations. The traffickers could be anyone, but what they have in common is a disturbing disregard for human life and human dignity. In Alabama, there are many dedicated agencies fighting for the human rights of these victims, including The WellHouse, Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, Alabama Fusion Center, and the Department of Homeland Security.

For DHS agent Doug Gilmer, there is a sense of urgency to his mission because it is a crime that’s “unspeakable.”

“When you get into the nitty-gritty of sex trafficking at the street level and you are interacting with the victims, seeing what they go through, seeing what the traffickers do…. It’s horrible,” Gilmer said. “Seeing a 14-year-old girl with eight different STDs and the 35-year-old man who purchases this girl for sex?”

“It shocks the conscience.”

Important Links

The WellHouse – A 24-hour shelter offering immediate assistance to trafficked women who are rescued from anywhere in the United States.

EnditAlabama.org – A project of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, which brings together public and private agencies to address the issue in Alabama.

Alabama Fusion Center – An information-sharing organization within the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency designed to combine or “fuse” information between federal, state and local government, private sector entities, and the intelligence community

Department of Homeland Security “Blue Campaign” – A national public awareness campaign, designed to educate the public, law enforcement and other industry partners to recognize the indicators of human trafficking, and how to appropriately respond to possible cases

Dianna Bai is a Birmingham-based writer who currently writes for AL.com. Her writing has been featured on Forbes, TechCrunch, and Medium. You can find her portfolio here.

Toward the Understanding and Eradication of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

The conversation around reproductive and sexual rights and the bodily autonomy of women generally consists of access to abortion, birth control, and intimate partner and sexual violence. FGM is a patriarchal cultural practice rooted in the cutting away of the female body with the suppression of emotion, which at its core, is a denial of personhood. For more than 200 million girls and women, the violation of their body occurred when they could not advocate for themselves. For these girls/women, it is as if all the entities in her world are conspiring against her current and future life. Although Grace details the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya in this blog, the violation has increased in the US since 1990. The global conversation on FGM has been spurred by young women and girls willing to risk social exclusion in the pursuit of eradicating gender-based violence. – AR (**Trigger warning)

by Grace Ndanu

a young Maasai girl warrior
Maasai Girl. Source: Donald Macauley, Creative Commons

The development of women has been low for a very long time in my country of Kenya because of some retrogressive cultures that include FGM, early marriages, and wife inheritance. For this blog, I will major on FGM within the community I am most familiar with: the Masai. 

The practice of FGM is rooted in gender inequality. Women will never have a say on the issues surrounding their daughters; this means that the men are the ones to control women’s sexuality, and ideas about purity, modesty, and purity. Although women do not have a say on their daughter issues, they are the ones to perform the act; this is seen as an honour. The act of cutting one’s daughter is both an honour and a fear. The fear lies in the inevitable social exclusion if the cutting does not occur. The procedure is done in three ways: partial or total removal of the clitoris, the complete or partial removal of the inner labia with or without removal of the clitoral organ and outer labia, or the removal of the external genitalia and fusion of the wound. The inner and/or outer labia are cut away with or without removal of the clitoral organ.

The cutters use non-sterile devices which may lead to contracting diseases such as HIV. The devices include knives, razors, scissors, glass, fingernails, or sharpened rocks. There are adverse health effects depending on the type of procedure. The effects include infections, difficulty in urinating and passing menstrual flow, chronic pain, development of cysts, complications during childbirth and fatal bleeding.

Female circumcision lowers girls self-esteem and confidence. When they undergo the practice, they must stay at home for them to heal which means, particularly for in a school, they miss a lot of their lessons. For those who have never been to school are at risk of being married at an early age, maybe 12, to an older man.

There have been efforts in fighting FGM because there are no known health benefits instead the effects known are negative. A number of NGOs, including the Cara Girls Rescue Center under the Cara Project, are helping to mitigate the practice. The Cara Center takes in girls who are at risk of going through the painful process and also the ones who are already circumcised. They ensure the girls’ safety and security. If the girl has not yet gone through the process, she is welcomed in the center and immediately start the counseling process. Additionally, she will begin schooling – some of them may not have gone to school at all. For those already violated, they are immediately taken to the Gender Violence Recovery Center under the Nairobi Women’s Hospital for medication where they are admitted and receive counseling. At the same time, both the parents and the cutters are arrested. They must present to court when they are summoned and given a warning that if it has ever happened again, they will be jailed.

The rescued girls and warned parents receive an education about the human and reproductive rights of girls and women. It is with this new knowledge that they understand their personal/familial and communal rights better. Learning has created awareness and advocacy throughout the Masai community [and in other African countries and throughout the world]. There has been the development of a zero-tolerance attitude on FGM matters that extends to many of them becoming rescuers of girls before they are circumcised. 

 

WILL MY STORY AND HOW AM PLANNING TO HELP THOSE WITH THE SAME PROBLEM EVER RULE THE WORLD?

by Grace Ndanu

Over spring break 2019, UAB students traveled to Kenya with Dr. Stacy Moak, Professor of Social Work, and Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter, Director of the UAB Institute for Human Rights. They visited CARA Girls Rescue Center where they met Grace, a student and former resident at CARA [she is behind the lady in the orange dress]. Below is Grace’s narrative which includes sexual violence. 

Photo by Stacy Moak

As humans, we are born to expect much than to face reality. We come to learn that everything has a purpose.

I was born in 1998 and raised by a single mother till 28th November 2004, where I got a daddy who I thought was loving and caring. Instead, he became a monster. Before my sister who was born in 22nd November 2005, the man started beating me for no reason and not just a child beat, it was a criminal beat whereby he used an electric wire to beat me up. As a child, I expected my mom to get in between and talk to her husband about the matter. My expectations became a fantasy and the beating became a habit. In 2006 in grade 4, I was supposed to go for tuition on weekends, but instead, I was forced to stay with my little sister at home so that my mom can go for work or church meeting. When I refused I was given a thorough beat and asked why I didn’t love my baby sister.

Sometimes the man volunteered to stay with the baby but insisted I remain so that I will help him with the baby. His agenda was opposite and he started molesting me. He started touching my private parts and when he knew it was time for mom to come back, he beat me up so that I should not say. As this was going on, we had a male neighbor who was doing the same as what my dad was doing but didn’t beat me. Until one Sunday, I refused to go to church and now I was left with the neighbor in the compound where he got a chance to rape me and asked me to keep quiet. Later in the evening, I decided to open up to my mom and she said that I was lying. She talked with my dad about the issue and they decided to ask the neighbor. Definitely, he denied. From this point, my parents started calling me a liar. This made my dad more comfortable in continuing what he was doing to me that is threatening me and sexually harassing me. This was still going on and my little sister grew up knowing I was a bad girl. It came to a point where anything happened to her she would say it is me.

a group photo of Grace and two of her friends
Photo by Grace Ndanu

On 22 April 2008, I got a baby brother and now I felt my life was at the peak. I didn’t want to live anymore and attempted three suicides. God remained faithful and kept me alive. It was on the second term of my grade 6 and I was transferred from a private to a public school which was 8km away from home. I was forced to walk all the way and come back home remember no lunch for me. In 2009, it was time for my sister to join [to go to] school. She was brought to the school I was which made my life more and more difficult because I carried the girl at my back every morning to school. My going to school late and tired became a habit and whenever I raised the issue, I was beaten and threatened that I will not join high school. I faced rejection, hatred, insult, and isolation. My brother and sister were growing knowing am the baddest person on earth. I went to a different church from the family so that I can come back home and do the house chores at this time. I was not allowed to stay with my siblings become it was believed I had no good intentions towards them.

In 2010, a church friend of my mom noticed she hasn’t seen me for a while and decided to visit us at home. She asked me if am fine and my response was positive but she was not convinced. She decided to pay my school fees and she ordered that I go back to my previous school. My dad was not happy and started accusing me of witchcraft, asking ‘why it is only me and not any other person.’ At this point, I decided to run from home – hoping after five years of tears and pain, I will come to my rescue. I didn’t know where to go but I started my journey in February on a Tuesday. I boarded a bus to a place called Kiserian and another one to Nairobi. I had no money but I reached Nairobi. I stayed in Nairobi for three days without food, just loitering and later I decided to call my mom with a stranger’s phone and she came to my rescue. The following Monday I was taken to school. I tried being strong by working hard but my life was miserable until I was through with my primary school. I promised myself that I will not live any longer and attempted another two suicides; I found myself alive.

I was enrolled in high school in 2011 which made me happy but inside I was dying. I knew the battle isn’t over yet because, during the holidays, I would go home. [In Kenya, most high schools are boarding schools.] My first holiday that was in April, I went home and this gave my dad a chance to rape me. He threatened me with a knife that if I said he will kill me. After four weeks, I went back to school. While in school, I started developing ulcers and depression. I started falling sick each day and this forced me to go home. While my mother was nursing me, I opened up to her about what dad was doing. [I thought she would defend me but] It came out the opposite and she defended her husband. She told me that I was lying. Later that evening she told the man what I told her during the day. The man denied and told my mom that I am cursed and that she should let me get married because I was a grown up at 13 years. I got well and went back to school. I got more depressed and started fainting. One of the teachers realized that nothing was going well with me. She decided to call me and ask me [about] the problem. I opened up to her. She went ahead and explained the matter to the principal. The principal made an arrangement of visiting a counselor and a doctor at the Nairobi Women’s Hospital. I started the medication together with the counseling sessions which was of great help.

a photo of Grace
CARA. Photo by Grace Ndanu

The principal did not only helped me get well. She also [helped me] find a good home for me at the Cara Girls Rescue Center. The center took good care of me and they also counselled me. After some weeks, I had no one to pay my school fees there. I was transferred to AIC girls where I would get a sponsor and continue with my studies. After I got someone to support me, I went back to Cara Girls Rescue Center where I am till date. Being suffered for eight good years–my all childhood life has been a hell. There was no love, no care, and no mercy even from my own mother. I promised myself that I will never allow any child or anyone go through what I went through. Through this, I have always admired to be a Gender and Development CEO. I am working towards the goal. I am in my second year of studying in Gender, Women, and Development Studies. I have joined Egerton University Human Rights Club and an organization, Family Health Options Kenya, which deals with sexual health. It involves educating peers about sex and what they should do when their rights are violated. In the future, I am planning to do a Masters in Gender, Peace, and Security. I must ensure children especially the ones living with their stepparents to have full access of their mental peace, and the young girls and women who can’t raise their voices. I aspire to give people light and hope and reasons to enjoy their lives. I have realised I never enjoyed life. I just lived because it was a must but now it is time to live in reality. This is what am supposed to do: make people live the reality life, the life they deserve and deal with the ones that come in between their peace, joy, happiness and their rights.

I believe I am an agent for change. I must bring a change AND WE WILL RULE THE WORLD.

If you would like for girls like Grace to stay in school, please consider donating to our LadyPad project, during the UAB Giving Day Campaign, by using this link https://www.uab.edu/givingday/?cfpage=project&project_id=27174

 

Book Review: Invisible No More – Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color

This book review was originally published in the Vulcan Historical Review, Fall 2018.  

Andrea J. Ritchie is a lawyer and activist. She writes Invisible No More “as an act of love, of mourning, of honoring, of commemoration, of liberation, as a contribution to our shared struggles, wrestling with the meanings of Blackness, privilege, solidarity, and co-struggling; of ‘survivor’ and ‘ally’” (5) for and from the community of which she is a member (11). The goal of Invisible No More is to establish recognition of the police brutality against women of color (us). She accomplishes this in several ways throughout this book. First, this book brings personal stories to the center and into focus by identifying the differences and commonalities among women of color. Second, it explores the various forms of police violence, as well as how race, gender, sexual orientation and ability to influence the action/expression of police violence. Third, it identifies patterns and paradigms within the controlling narratives which are rooted in colonialism, slavery, and structural violence. Lastly, it invites a discourse on aspects of the mass incarceration system previously invisible, including profiling and police brutality against women of color.

The book’s layout consists of eight chapters (2-9) that highlight various areas and interactions of police with women of color. Each chapter concludes with a resistance subsection wherein details of individual and collective resistance to the policing of gender takes a variety of forms at the local and national level (139). Ritchie bookends chapters 2-9 with chapter one, “Enduring Legacies” and chapter ten, “Resistance.” Within the pages, Ritchie questions the societal demand upon police for prevention of and response to violence while also challenging their contribution to the violence. Additionally, she ponders, “what would it mean to build structures and strategies beyond police that will produce genuine safety for women of color, especially in hostile terrain.” (18) She suggests that placing Black women and women of color at the center of the conversation shifts demands, analysis, and approaches (17).

Chapter 1 outlines the historical record of violence against women of color, inclusive of Indigenous women, by highlighting a portion of the controlling narratives. Colonization brought about the desecration and extermination of Indigenous identity and humanity. Sexual violence was a primary weapon. Ritchie introduces the concept of “the myth of absence” as a collective reductionist method. Employing the myth of absence allows for the normalization of invisibility under the guise of colonial establishment. This myth applies to both land and sea.

Masters of the enslaved utilized motherhood as an instrument of punishment under the oppressiveness of slavery. There was no shadow of law, so Black women became property, and with this new “label” came the disassociation their gendered status. This disassociation with womanhood dislodged the perception of femininity as well. “This system of constructed categorizations of Black women’s behavior and possibilities for existence persist to this present day… such narratives [mammy, Jezebel, subservience, tolerant, pain intolerant] inform police perceptions of what conduct is appropriate and permissible toward Black women.” (35)

The government positions immigrant women as a “control apparatus… for the regulation of sexual norms, identities and behaviors.” (37) This control functions as both a mode of discipline and a measurement of their suitability to contribute to the overall national identity (38). Stereotyped and prejudged, immigrants and queer/trans women extend beyond the normalized border standard of hetero, cis, white, etc. In other words, non-white women—whether with attitude, dress, and sexuality, size and skin tone—represent a deviation from the norm. To correct the “deviation,” a pattern of law enforcement arises to “structure and reinforce…perceptions” (41).

Chapters 2-9 describes the patterns of law enforcement applied to women of color. A summarization to the roots of the enforcement patterns comes from Arizona State University professor, Ersula Ore: “This entire thing has been about your lack of respect for me.” (58) The chapters expose how police, with impunity, make gender (for cis and/or queer/trans women) a sociopolitical site (139) of human rights abuses and violations as they view the bodies of girls and women of color as threats in public and private spaces (145). The gendered degradation and disposability of Black women (51-2) and the deep devaluation of motherhood and life for women of color (170) are merely two identifiable threads in the fabric of sexual violence within the police system (105).

Chapters 3 and 4 confirm that police brutality against women of color, includes minors and persons with disabilities. There is no escape from the profane overreaction of those “who make the rules up as they go along and often enforce them in deeply racialized ways” (75). In chapter 3, Ritchie builds upon the works of Monique W. Morris and bell hooks. They agree that schools—sites for the profound regulation and punishment of Black femininity– institute zero-tolerance policies and exact an “oppositional gaze” applicable disproportionally to girls of color, who are disrupting the peace or engaging in disorderly conduct by “having the audacity to demand to be treated with dignity” (73-8). Morris introduces age compression as a weapon in the arsenal that schools and law enforcement use against girls of color. Age compression is the inability to see children of color as children, because of this, they are handled and treated like adults of color (78). In chapter 4, with each incident involving police and women with a disability or mental health disorder, the women are either injured or killed. Thus, in both instances, the failure to respond appropriately due to the misapplication of stereotypes escalates but does not resolve situations.

Chapter 10 provides an extended culmination of the resistance subsections introduced in chapters 2-9. This chapter seeks to outline critical ways community activists and organizers, alongside survivors and the families of the victims, are turning violations into victories by piercing the bubble of silence. Ritchie repeats the underlying question of “what would freedom from fear look like for girls and women of color” while reminding the reader of the need to continually speak truth to power. Resistance, like violence, exists within the sociopolitical site of the body (139). Resistance draws those subjected to the margins by anti-police violence and feminist movements, back in and towards the center with the understanding that police are necessary for social order (205-7). However, the perpetuation of violence and the invisibility of that occurs during and after, can no longer remain in the shadows (206). Resistance reinstitutes the tradition of truth-telling through the reclaiming of bodies and humanity.

Two key strengths of this book are the inclusion of Ritchie’s personal experience and investment, and her purposeful build upon the works of Angela Y. Davis, Danielle McGuire, Beth Richie, Monique Morris, bell hooks, etc. By incorporating the works of other female activists/scholars who posit and bring a different angle to this issue, this book makes a significant contribution to recovering the missing female narrative within the mass incarceration canon and the US gender relations discourse. This is a huge plus for this book as “women of color” includes every non-white category and encompasses the fluidity of the gender/sexuality spectrum. Ritchie does not shy away from her critique of the embedded racial and gender bias within the American social system. Her frankness adds a crucial element to discussions on interracial relations and intra-racial relations.

Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color is an off the beaten path collection of domestic violence and terror stories against humans being of color. It is difficult to read which, frankly, deserves a trigger warning. By reading this book, one begins to understand both the complexity and the root of Kaepernick’s protest, the demands of justice for women like Sandra Bland, Chikesia Clemons, and Deborah Danner, and the mindfulness of young girls like Naomi Wadler. It is a stark reminder that there is a notably, significant difference in the treatment of whites and non-whites by law enforcement, and if you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.